According to a bombshell report from the Des Moines Register last week, Chaisson-Cárdenas lost his position as director of Iowa 4-H in August after resisting outside pressure to rescind LGBT-inclusive guidance.
According to communications reviewed by the Register, the ultimate source of that pressure was none other than the Trump administration—specifically the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which houses 4-H.
In one of his first interviews since the Register investigation, Chaisson-Cárdenas told the Daily Beast that he didn’t know until last week that the Trump administration figured into his firing.
“I had an idea that it went in that direction, but I did not know how far up this went,” he said, adding that he only found out when he saw the Register article.
According to the Register, national 4-H recently developed LGBT-inclusive guidance in an attempt to modernize the youth program—and Chaisson-Cárdenas was one of the state-level program directors to post that guidance online.
That led to backlash from socially conservative media outlets, who took particular umbrage with the idea of transgender inclusion in 4-H, and reportedly prompted the chief of staff for Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue to push for the guidance to be withdrawn.
Ultimately, the Register reported, the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture asked for the guidance to be rescinded, which eventually led to the dismissal of Chaisson-Cárdenas after he defended a May 2018 LGBTQ Inclusion document. [PDF]
“It brought clarity to me in some ways,” Chaisson-Cárdenas told The Daily Beast of the Register’s investigation. “It helped me understand. It helped me put the pieces together.”
They May 2018 document states that 4-H should be “a safe and inclusive atmosphere for all Iowa youth” and that the program, in accordance with state law, would not discriminate on the basis of several protected characteristics, including “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”
Iowa does indeed bar discrimination on the basis of gender identity in public accommodations, employment, housing, and education.
Given that context, Chaisson-Cárdenas tells The Daily Beast that he was “surprised when there was the amount of resistance that was coming” after the May 2018 document was posted, including mounting calls for his dismissal.
In fact, he was so certain that the guidance was appropriate that he was shocked when he was asked by his supervisor at Iowa State University Extension to resign.
“In this particular case, I thought I was in the square almost to the moment I was told to resign,” Chaisson-Cárdenas told The Daily Beast. “Really, it kind of surprised me because, although people are making a lot out of the proposal that I put out, if you really look at it, it was nothing new.”
Chaisson-Cárdenas, as the Register previously noted, became the first Latino 4-H leader in Iowa history after getting his master’s degree at Iowa University and working with youth in Chicago. His family immigrated to the United States from Guatemala in the 1990s during the country’s long-running civil war.
“I’ve seen firsthand what happens when civil rights and human rights are not respected,” he told The Daily Beast of his time in Guatemala, remembering in particular the 1998 assassination of human rights activist Monsignor Juan José Gerardi Conedera, a Catholic bishop who served on the country’s National Reconciliation Commission.
Chaisson-Cárdenas said that his subsequent experience as an immigrant in the U.S. also shaped the commitment to civil rights that he would carry with him to his work at 4-H.
“I landed in the cultural Mecca of the United States—Cheyenne, Wyoming,” he joked. “So I’ve been minoritized my entire life. My family has been, [too,] being immigrants, being non-English speakers.”
For him, working to protect LGBT youth in 4-H was as simple as enforcing protections based on race, disability, national origin, or any other characteristic.
“To me, there is a very strong affinity between what happens with LGBTQ youth and what happens with immigrants, what happens with youth of color, what happens with kids with disabilities,” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s all the same type of oppression and discrimination and hate for who you are as a person. To me, there’s no true difference.”
In particular, Chaisson-Cárdenas said that he was starting to see transgender youth in 4-H experience discrimination and he “just could not abide by that.”
“I could not stand by and let that happen,” he said. “I did it for them.”
Since his firing—and the attention brought by the Des Moines Register’s reporting— Chaisson-Cárdenas has been working on his doctorate degree at nearby Iowa State University and interviewing for jobs, although he said that “it’s very hard once you’re publicly shamed like I was to be able to get a job.” This despite the widespread backlash to the Trump administration’s reported involvement, which even earned a rebuke from Republican senator Chuck Grassley, as the Register noted in a follow-up report.
“The story is that I got fired,” Chaisson-Cárdenas said. “Right now, there’s a lot of attention on me, so what organization is going to want to walk into that?”
Without a job, he said, he he has had “moments” of “really difficult soul-searching” combined with a flood of heartwarming support from friends and former colleagues. He has also filed a civil rights complaint in the state of Iowa, as Iowa Public Radio reported.
“But I’ll tell you,” he continued, on the brink of tears, “it’s been really hard for my family and I. It’s just been really hard. We’re not rich. We’re supporting our parents. We’re just plain ordinary folks who, if you lose an income, it’s a huge deal.”
Still, he bears no ill will against 4-H itself, saying that the organization “is an incredibly powerful thing, when done right.” Founded in the early twentieth century, 4-H serves over 6 million youth. Chaisson-Cárdenas believes the Register’s reporting makes it clear that the “resistance” to LGBT inclusion doesn’t stem from national 4-H but from the USDA, which did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
However hard things might be for him right now, Chaisson-Cárdenas says that no job is more important than knowing he did the right thing.
“My conscience is whole,” he said. “I feel I did the best I could under the situation I was in—and that is also really empowering. That’s just where I am at this point: I gotta believe that what goes around, comes around, and hopefully the cosmos will make things better over time.”